One of the myriad of things I am glad about, not living in the U.S. anymore is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I remember a friend’s child coming home from school sobbing, asking if they were going to come and take her and daddy away. The music teacher had thought it was a great idea to teach the kids about slavery and the underground railroad as part of black history month. The poor kid was five and the only black kid in her class. I have a feeling I would have been talking to the teachers a lot about their curriculum for this time of year and potentially taking my kids out of school for a few days.
Another friend recently was talking about how she was trying to explain the holiday to her four year old and realized that this meant first having to teach him the concept of race, because he’d never even considered skin color a defining characteristic of people. Cartoon characters came in all colors, the humans he knew were mostly pale, but some were also dark.
Anyway, this got me thinking about how did I learn about racism and America’s ugly legacy. When did I first learn about slavery? Jim Crow? I know the first time I saw African-Americans was when we took a trip to Boston. Much to my parents embarrassment we stared unabashedly. I don’t remember the incident, but as far back as seven years old I can remember admiring dark skin and micro curls. The 80’s were all about curly hair and nothing is curlier than African hair. I can remember loving to look at Whitney Houston album that Daddy had, because of the beautiful contrast between the pale pink dress she was wearing on the cover and luminous dark skin. To the best of my memory, at least what stuck, I learned about black Americans the same time I learned about Jewish Americans. Stories like how when my Mom’s family moved from Chicago to Georgia, they knew it was a bad place, because there were no black kids in her brother’s Boy Scouts troop and sure enough the KKK came next week and torched their lawn. They moved to Florida. Florida that didn't teach that the south lost the Civil War. Florida that had separate drinking fountains for “colored” vs. “white”. I learned about redlining and black people being locked out of home ownership at the same time that my father was pointing to the houses at the bottom of the hill telling me that’s where the rich Jews used to be allowed to live, but now we owned a house on the top. So to me the terrible things that were inflicted on black Americans weren’t southing that happened to other people. They were relatable. Jews didn’t have it as bad, but it was an experience similar enough that I could have true empathy and kinship for what they had gone through.
What horrifies me today though is that I truly believed that these were the sins of our parents’ generation. I truly thought that was buried and done and that I was part of the generation that had the ability to heal all those wounds created by the stupid construct of race and raise the generation that moved beyond that. It wasn’t until I got into podcasts and the 2016 election that I realized this wasn’t history it was the present. I’m only 37 and it’s within my lifetime that black women’s romance novels have been allowed to be published, it’s in my generation that we’ve started to see TV that is reflective of the actual demographics of the United States, it’s within my lifetime that the medical industry was still running experiments on black and hispanic people without their consent. Red lining is still happening. Institutional racism is still happening. Being shot for your perceived race. still. happening. Antisemitism may be on the rise, but it seems like racism never even went away.
However, I digress, I don’t know how as a child you reconcile your children to the travesty that is modern American culture, but I do know this. If you do not consider yourself black and you are trying to teach your children about Martin Luther King Jr. If you want your children to empathize and relate, it’s much easier if you can talk about discrimination in your own family. What it was like to be an Italian, a Pole, Irish, Chinese, Japanese…chances are you have some roots in people who were treated like trash when they first came. Black people aren’t special in their history of persecution and I think the most important thing we can teach our children is that this isn’t some other group, these are our future spouses, our grandchildren, our friends, our community and things totally could be turned on their heads and tomorrow it’s the oppression of anyone with freckles or hook noses. We are all the same and it’s not about being an ally, its’s recognizing we are all part of the same group.